Once Bullied Now a Surgeon, an Immigrant’s Story
By Kimberly Rowen
Daniel Murariu was 13 years old when he stepped off the plane onto U.S. soil for the first time—his new home. He and his mother had stayed behind in Romania while his father and older brother started new lives in the U.S. Finally, after two long years, all four were together again as a family.
Peering out the car window, his first impression of America was that everything was bigger. The buildings were taller, the distances between places farther. Owning a car had been a luxury in his hometown of Iasi, Romania, with the city’s dense layout and public transportation system. Here, it was a necessity.
When Communism first fell in Romania in 1989, Daniel’s parents were hopeful that the country would see rapid positive change. As the economy crashed and political unrest resulted in violent demonstrations, they realized stability was years away. Already having extended family in the United States and recognizing the opportunity there, they decided to emigrate.
The first days and weeks were difficult for Murariu.
He knew a little English, but was so nervous the first time someone in America spoke to him, he got flustered and answered in Romanian.
Despite being taller than most of his peers, not knowing the language made him an easy target for bullies. His parents had warned him not to get into trouble in school, so he knew he couldn’t fight back. Unsure of what to do in his predicament, he went to the school counselor’s office every time he was bullied.
He spent a lot of time in the counselor’s office that first year.
“When you’re new to a place and you don’t know the language or the culture you are a little bit marginalized from that standpoint,” Murariu recalls. “People pick on you because they see you as easy prey in a way.”
Solace came in the form of basketball. He was often the only white kid on the court in inner city Chicago, but found his peers there to be more accepting of him. His skills on the court became an equalizer that crossed the language barrier.
Over time, he adapted, learned the language, and flourished.
“My family didn’t speak a whole lot of English before they came. My dad took a year of lessons in Romania, and then he took more lessons in the US. And he continued to learn throughout. We had a portable dictionary that would also say the word and we got good use of that thing. He would always carry it with him, he was very diligent about it. My mom, she started slow. She took lessons. She watched a lot of soap operas and that’s where she learned a lot of English.”
Integration into American culture became easier and Murariu quickly moved up to honors classes in high school, and eventually he went to medical school and earned his Master of Public Health (MPH) and medical degree in the top of his class. His surgical residencies and fellowship followed a similar template. Work harder. Push yourself. Don’t take things for granted.
Murariu has observed that these are common traits among immigrant families. “Immigrants that come to the US, they are very determined. You come to the U.S. because you want to do something, to achieve something, and it’s the land of opportunity. It’s corny, but it’s true. If you work hard, you can achieve it.”
Based on the challenges he faced during his first year in the U.S., Murariu has advice for individuals or non profits looking to help immigrants and refugees in their community.
“Provide ways to be able to integrate people…to learn the language, the culture, make them feel welcome.”
He feels having American families as mentors that immigrants can reach out to—who help them feel welcome and offer support as they learn to adjust to their new culture—would be a great advantage toward helping ease the culture shock.
Murariu is now a U.S. citizen, but continues to maintain strong ties to his Romanian identity. Preserving the identity of one’s native country while integrating into a new community can be a delicate balance, but one he feels is important for anyone that has emigrated.
Those strong ties meant that when he returned to Romania to visit family, he noticed something that troubled him.
“I would go back to my grandma’s village and see all these kids that…you could tell they were smart, but they were working the land, tilling, subsistence living.”
Recognizing the value of education and the opportunities it had brought in his own life, Murariu resolved to give back to the people of Romania. His first focus was improving educational opportunities for economically disadvantaged kids in rural Romanian villages. After setting up a foundation that offers scholarships and helps schools in need of supplies, he began facilitating medical missions trips and health campaigns to rural villages.
As he completed his education and training, Murariu lived in four different cities. While temporarily residing in each, he worked to forge connections between each city and Romania.
While in New Orleans, he coordinated medical missions trips between physicians, residents, and students from Tulane University and doctors from Romania. They brought medical specialists (pediatric, cardiology, gastroenterology, pulmonary) from the U.S. to provide consultations to patients in rural villages.
In Hawaii for his general surgery residency, he worked with Rotary International on a global grant to create a multidisciplinary approach to craniofacial and cleft deformities. This long term project brings medical professionals from the United States to Romania to lecture, train, and perform surgeries side by side with the Romanians. The surgeons from Romania also come to the U.S. to train here.
While in Virginia for his plastic and reconstructive surgery residency, Murariu helped form a memorandum between the University of Virginia (UVA) and the University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Iasi, Romania that builds on the project started in Hawaii. There is now a collaborative, multidisciplinary team between the two countries working towards the ultimate goal of bringing a pediatric craniofacial center to Romania.
In Texas for his fellowship in microvascular reconstructive surgery, he began working on a collaboration between MD Anderson Cancer Center and the oncological institutions in Romania to bring U.S. physicians to lecture and operate together with Romanians.
It’s been 25 years since Murariu first stepped foot in the U.S. In the city of bridges, he continues to work to build them between his new country and his old one. His projects in Romania reflect his desire to give back to the country that formed him.
“Obviously I still have Romanian-ness to me and I think that I take the best of both worlds; the good side of Romanian culture, the good sides of American culture, and kind of combine them. That’s why I still do projects in Romania, because I still kind of retain some of that identity and I try to be proactive about it.”
Now a Pittsburgh resident and plastic surgeon at Allegheny General Hospital, Murariu continues to run his foundation focusing on improving educational opportunities for Romanian youth. He remains involved with three ongoing projects in Romania: bringing a craniofacial center to Iasi, replacing the sterilization core of a pediatric hospital in Brasov, and bringing physicians from the U.S. for cultural and information exchange via lectures and operating together with Romanian doctors.
As always, he is reaching out to his new community for help. Murariu recently met with one of the leading pediatric craniofacial surgeons in Pittsburgh to ask him to get involved, and the surgeon agreed.
Murariu is also exploring the possibility of bringing a Romanian medical resident to train at the University of Pittsburgh. At the end of their fellowship, the resident would return to Romania and be a part of the craniofacial center there. Moving forward, Murariu is hoping to expand the exchange between U.S. and Romanians into research and more student and medical resident collaboration.
Reflecting on his experience as a young immigrant in America, he credits leadership and community involvement as two positives of American culture that have influenced him.
“Being an immigrant shaped me, it made me who I am today, its given me a better outlook on things. You can’t take things for granted.”
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